Brave Afghani Women Protest Law Change

Posted on Categories Feminism, Human Rights, Immigration Law, International Law & Diplomacy, Political Processes & Rhetoric

Did you see this article in the New York Times this morning, about the 300 women protesting a new law that would give men in the Shiite minority community virtually complete control over the lives of their wives?  The NYT describes the law this way:

The law, approved by both houses of Parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai, applies to the Shiite minority only, essentially giving clerics authority over intimate matters between women and men. Women here and governments and rights groups abroad have protested three parts of the law especially.

One provision makes it illegal for a woman to resist her husband’s sexual advances. A second provision requires a husband’s permission for a woman to work outside the home or go to school. And a third makes it illegal for a woman to refuse to “make herself up” or “dress up” if that is what her husband wants.

And the protest itself:

The women who protested Wednesday began their demonstration with what appeared to be a deliberately provocative act. They gathered in front of the School of the Last Prophet, a madrassa run by Ayatollah Asif Mohsini, the country’s most powerful Shiite cleric. He and the scholars around him played an important role in the drafting of the new law.

“We are here to campaign for our rights,” one woman said into a loudspeaker. Then the women held their banners aloft and began to chant.

The reaction was immediate. Hundreds of students from the madrassa, most but not all of them men, poured into the streets to confront the demonstrators.

“Death to the enemies of Islam!” the counterdemonstrators cried, encircling the women. “We want Islamic law!”

The women stared ahead and kept walking.

A phalanx of police, some of them women, held the crowds apart.

As a refugee law professor, dramatic confrontations like this one always lead my thoughts back to the legal definition of “refugee,” and the absence of  “gender” among the enumerated categories of persecution.  For instance, the U.S. defines “refugee” as a person “unable or unwilling to return to . . . [his or her home] country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion . . . .” I have considered thearguments, legal and practical, against trying to add “gender” to the Refugee Convention’s definition as a separate ground.  But I think I disagree.  For that reason and so many others, it seems like time to revisit the convention and protocol that established the international definition of “refugee.”

Back to the main point, the courage of these Afghani women is inspiring. And the NYT article suggests that the law change might possibly be halted before becoming enforceable.

Cross-posted at feministlawprofs.

2 thoughts on “Brave Afghani Women Protest Law Change”

  1. Much has been written about the “identity politics” of the postmodern society. The basic notion is that we increasingly define ourselves “politically” with reference not to liberalism or conservatism but rather race, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc. I personally maintain a fondness for the “left to right” politics of the traditional political spectrum, but I nevertheless accept the importance and legitimacy of identity politics. From this perspective, gender seems clearly to be a source of persecution in many parts of the world, and I agree that “gender” should be added to the enumerated categories for refugee status in the United States. In fact, I’m stunned that it’s not on the list.

  2. It’s interesting that you address the point this way, David. In truth, as my refugee law seminar students and I discussed a couple of weeks ago, an alternative way to define a refugee would be to replace the list of enumerated grounds with “social group,” because in the end it seems that wherever persecution occurs, it follows from the persecutor’s perception that the persecutor is a member of a social group that deserves the punishment. What is interesting to me is the way that refugee law struggles to deny that persecution does occur on account of gender, or more precisely, often, failure of the persecuted to conform their behavior to prescribed gender roles.

    You would probably also be interested to know that, I think similarly, refugee law struggles to find a way to deny that persecution occurs on account of economic beliefs or practices, beliefs that are defined as personal choices, rather than political ones. For instance, see the Board of Immigration’s decision in Matter of Acosta, which explained that a taxi driver’s harassment and fears of murder by guerrillas was not “persecution” because, it resulted from his refusal “to participate in work stoppages in that city. The characteristics defining the group of which the respondent was a member and subjecting that group to punishment were being a taxi driver in San Salvador and refusing to participate in guerrilla-sponsored work stoppages. Neither of these characteristics is immutable because the members of the group could avoid the threats of the guerrillas either by changing jobs or by cooperating in work stoppages. It may be unfortunate that the respondent either would have had to change his means of earning a living or cooperate with the guerrillas in order to avoid their threats. However, the internationally accepted concept of a refugee simply does not guarantee an individual a right to work in the job of his choice.”

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